Opinion

Ellen Smith
Challenging the casualisation of academia

Last year, as the tertiary education sector reeled from the impacts of Covid-19, the University of Melbourne quietly agreed to pay millions in unpaid wages to casual teaching staff. The settlement came after the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) launched proceedings with the Fair Work Ombudsman, alleging wage theft by the university. And it was sizeable – an estimated $6 million in the arts faculty alone, paid to staff for work dating back to 2014.

Despite the size of the payout though, the Melbourne University case received little attention – nothing on the scale of the headline-grabbing wage theft cases at 7-Eleven, Domino’s Pizza or George Calombaris’s restaurant empire. Claimants were paid what they asked for and sent a letter of apology by the university, but then it seemed things returned to business as usual. And, to the detriment of casuals in other universities around Australia, it did not set a legal precedent.

Managers across the university sector deny there is a systemic problem with underpayment of casual teaching staff. In its submission to the continuing senate inquiry into unlawful underpayment of employees’ remuneration, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association – the employer body for Australia’s higher education sector – says it “takes exception to the NTEU’s unsubstantiated assertions that Australian universities operate under a ‘business model’ that involves the deliberate underpayment of their staff”. However, it is worth noting that despite the fact the senate inquiry was set up as a response to the highly publicised cases of wage theft in retail and hospitality, 14 of the 121 submissions related to casual employment at universities.

Everyone who’s worked in Australia’s universities knows the allegations levelled against Melbourne University represent not only standard practice across the sector but are also just the tip of the iceberg. In the past 12 months, at least 10 Australian universities have faced wage theft allegations – including the University of Sydney, RMIT University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland – and as we move into a new academic year, there will probably be more.

As someone who has worked both as a casual academic and on contract at a number of different universities, I can confidently say wage theft occurs in almost every part of the job.

Lectures are misclassified as tutorials and tutorials as “practice classes” so staff can be paid at a lower hourly rate than they are entitled. Casual academics hired to “co‑ordinate” subjects find they have to write the subject content from scratch, before they even have a contract. Woefully inadequate hours are allocated for marking, preparing tutorials and writing lectures. Although the hours are often based on rates set out in the institution’s enterprise bargaining agreement, negotiated between management and the NTEU, they radically underestimate the time and skill involved in teaching at the university level. Hour-long lectures, for example, are often allocated three hours for writing and delivery – eight to 10 hours would be more realistic.

But underpayment is not the only problem. Much of the work actually involved in running and teaching a university subject – student consultations, planning meetings, administration, maintaining online learning systems, curriculum development and more – is not paid for at all, because it is often not included in casual contracts.

It is notoriously difficult to get an accurate picture of just how much teaching is done by casuals in Australian universities, because the universities do not make this information public. A 2008 report found it was between 50 and 80 per cent; if we look at casualisation trends in the broader labour market, the numbers are likely higher today. The NTEU has revealed that at some universities, including the University of Melbourne, more than 70 per cent of all staff are in insecure employment.

Last year, to get a snapshot of the problem at their institution, 19 academics in the University of Sydney’s casuals network recorded the actual time worked over a six-week period. It totalled 753 unpaid hours. The worst underpayment was for administrative tasks, where staff were only paid one hour for every six hours worked, on average. Overall, 43 per cent of work performed went unpaid.

 

Casualisation creates a yawning divide among teaching staff at universities. In my experience as a casual – working what was in reality a heavy full-time teaching load – the take-home pay was about $40,000 a year. Compare this with a permanent entry-level lecturer, who will be on a salary of about $100,000, plus leave entitlements and 17 per cent superannuation.

Casuals do not receive holiday, sick or carer’s leave, and are paid a lower rate of superannuation – 9.5 per cent. They are given no research funding or support and don’t need to be paid during non-teaching periods. And, as was brought into sharp relief by the mass firings at Australian universities last year in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, they have no job security.

But casualisation saves universities a great deal of money and, despite their claims to the contrary, it has become part of the business strategy of these institutions.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that these practices, while set in place by management, are also enabled by a massive status divide between the casual teaching staff and the well-paid permanent academic staff who hire casuals, allocate the work, sign off on their contracts and pay claims. Many do so in line with the conditions of the EBA, which although woeful are at least legal. But others, under pressure to produce research, will palm off some of their teaching responsibilities onto casuals. While on paper a permanent staff member may be responsible for curriculum development, a casual may in fact do the lion’s share of this work without pay – writing the assessments, developing the reading lists, liaising with the library and so on.

Even well-meaning faculty members are unable to ensure casuals are paid for all the work they do, as the departmental casual budget won’t allow it. So, they will say to the casual, “Just don’t give it too much time” or “Make sure you stick to your hours”, even though they know it is impossible to do the work in the allocated hours. As a teacher you can’t turn up to a lecture theatre with only 20 minutes of material, or stop answering student emails in week six of term because you have used up all the hours in your contract.

There is often a clause in casual teaching contracts that says the hours listed are an estimate and may fluctuate. This allows the university to cancel the contract at any time without notice. In theory, it also allows casual staff to claim any hours they work in excess of those assigned in the contract. And according to the Fair Work Award, casual academics are legally entitled to be paid for every hour they work. In practice, this does not happen. I have never heard of a faculty member insisting their casual staff are paid for all work performed. People’s loyalties tend to run up rather than down, and staff who are anxious about their own job security are more likely to obey their managers than defend their casuals. They also know management will say that the money just isn’t in the budget.

The fact that casuals are not broadly visible on university campuses makes it easy for even the best-intentioned faculty to turn a blind eye to wage theft. Casuals are rarely given office space. They prepare their classes at home, turn up to teach and then leave. It is much easier to believe that someone wrote a lecture in two hours – or designed a course in five minutes, as I once heard a permanent staff member say – if you don’t see them at their desk at 10pm, or hear them talking in the corridor about how overworked they are. Casuals are not invited to faculty meetings, nor are they offered training or professional development. They don’t go to the student graduation ceremonies and are often not even invited to staff Christmas parties.

In some ways, casuals are complicit in their own exploitation. Up until now, casual staff have tended to enter the allocated hours into their time sheet, not the actual hours worked, which would be required for a legal challenge to the university. They also perform tasks that go well beyond those that they’ve been explicitly asked to do, such as reading drafts, answering emails on the weekend, offering student consultations and writing references.

Partly this is the result of their professionalism and commitment to being good teachers and mentors, despite the conditions they labour under. Partly it is about job insecurity. Casuals fear if they complain they won’t be offered any more work. But it is also because of a delusion that if they work really hard, they will get a permanent job. This delusion is a leftover from an earlier time, when casual tutoring was seen as an apprenticeship to a career in the university. There is no longer a pathway from casual teaching to a permanent salaried teaching and research position in Australian universities. In fact, doing too much casual teaching can make you less employable, earning you the brand of a teaching workhorse, rather than a research star.

One of the major dysfunctions of today’s universities is that the people who do what the public think of as the core work of these institutions – that is, teaching undergraduates – are the most marginal and most precariously employed. These core workers are not seen by management or most permanent staff as employees of the university at all. But the truth is that today’s universities could not function without their casual workforce, and this presents an industrial opportunity for casuals. That the University of Melbourne was so quick to settle with its casuals suggests they know this. If casuals across the sector follow suit and challenge the entrenched practices at their own institutions, Australia’s universities will be in deep trouble.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "Casual wage theft par for the course".

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Ellen Smith holds a PhD from Princeton University and has taught English literature at universities in Australia, Britain and the United States.